The following is excerpted from The Redshirt; Copyright © 2020 By Corey Sobel. Reprinted here with permission of University Press of Kentucky.
The Redshirt by Corey Sobel
I was raised in Sillitoe, Colorado, a suburb in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, ten interchangeable square miles of sagebrush, strip malls, cacti, and ticky-tacky subdivisions. My parents both worked administrative positions for the same multinational mining company that employed most of my town, and like virtually all our neighbors we were as pale as the snowy peaks visible from my bedroom window and Christian in a perfunctory, most-Sundays sense—Roman Catholic, to be exact.
Such relentless uniformity magnified the smaller differences between people, which is how a white-bread kid like me got singled out as a weirdo. It started with my voice, a faint, airy, tentative thing that my classmates mockingly transformed into a lispy soprano and that the adults who called our house would mistake for a little girl’s (failing to stifle their laughter when I corrected them). Raising my hand in class, yelling out on the playground, even saying good morning to the school bus driver could lead to humiliation, and by second grade I had developed a quiet, watchful manner to limit my exposure. In the way these things go, it was my quietness, and not the bullying, that prompted my teacher Ms. Munson to call Mom and Dad in for a conference one autumn afternoon. Ms. Munson informed my parents that “Miles displays antisocial tendencies”—which, in a town that prides itself on sunny friendliness, was like saying your son’s got a horn growing in the middle of his forehead.
My parents scrambled to find a cure. They conscripted classmates into play dates, but since those kids were often the same ones who bullied me at school, the sessions just led to more alienation. A halogen lamp was set up in the corner of my bedroom on the theory that I needed more light, but all the lamp got me was scalded fingers when I tried removing the bulb. I was taken to something called a “friendship specialist,” a charlatan who conned my parents out of a sizeable chunk of their modest salaries via hourlong sessions in which I practiced things like shaking hands or making eye contact.
The next, worst remedy came after I sat for a state-mandated aptitude test that spring. Ms. Munson called my parents in again, but this time she was all smiles as she showed off my unusually high test scores and pronounced that the real root of the problem was that I wasn’t being challenged enough by my classwork. It was Ms. Munson’s recommendation that I skip a grade, and my parents, blinded by the pride of having a gifted son, didn’t consider the questionable logic that led my teacher to her conclusion, nor the disastrous implications of me going from being the meek, weak-voiced kid in class to being the meek, weak-voiced kid who was also a head shorter and a year younger than his peers. Which is precisely what I became when I was advanced to the third grade.
At this point, a lot of kids in my position would have thrown up their hands and cultivated rich interior worlds to compensate for the exterior one that insisted on misunderstanding them. But I was an only child, and the last thing I wanted was more alone time to crawl even further inside my wormy brain. Beneath my shyness was a burning desire to be accepted, a sharp hunger to homogenize. And in Sillitoe, Colorado, the easiest way for a boy to do that was to love football.
Organized ball started in fourth grade, and I spent the preceding summer reading Sports Illustrated articles and counting down the days until my first practice. When the holy morning finally arrived, Mom took off the first half of work to drive me to my state-mandated physical. I doubt a pediatrician has ever had a patient more eager to drop his drawers and cough as her cold hand cupped his testicles. Then we visited a sporting goods store downtown, where I obtained a jockstrap as big as my face and the first cleats of my young life, low-cut Nike Sharks the color of tar. My parents switched duties at noon, so that Mom headed to work while Dad drove me to a municipal park with the Rockies’ Front Range lording over it. When we pulled into the parking lot, I begged Dad to stay in the car—I wanted to show off my independence to my new teammates—and as I stepped alone into the hot, dry August afternoon and crossed the parking lot in my cleats, I felt like an astronaut taking his first steps on Mars. My confidence lasted until I spotted my teammates on the practice fields, the same kids who bullied me at school, including Gus Mintaur, an ice-eyed Aryan who was in the habit of “accidentally” pouring milk down my back in the cafeteria. I began wishing, desperately, that Dad was close by.
A whistle was blown and we took a knee around our head coach, Frank Johannsen. Coach Johannsen was redwood tall and just as mightily built, with a broad hairy chest that imposed swirls through his T-shirt’s fabric and gray cloth Champion shorts that showed off calves so big I was put in mind of a National Geographic photo of a boa constrictor that had swallowed a deer whole.
I didn’t catch much of his opening speech, distracted by Gus and the other kids who were looking at me and whispering. Johannsen ordered us to form a line for warm-up sprints, and as we did, Gus made a crack about the supposed tightness of my shorts. I looked over at the parking lot, where Dad had gotten out of the car to watch us. I could run over and tell him to speed us away from this horrible place. I could beg him and Mom to homeschool me and never say the word “football” again. But then the whistle sounded and I was sprinting in my gangly boyish way, my anxiety receding a little bit more with each step forward. I wasn’t at the head of the pack, but I wasn’t bringing up the rear, either. I was right in the middle, happily absorbed into the thudding, gasping masses.
I was made an outside linebacker. I took to the position fanatically, and within a few weeks Coach Johannsen was bringing me magazine profiles of greats like Lawrence Taylor and Junior Seau, loaning me hand-labeled VHSs of all-time college and NFL games, staying after practice to work with me on stance and footwork. Dad was delighted I’d been singled out, but Mom grew suspicious of a man with no wedding band showing her son so much individual attention. One Sunday, she invited him over for dinner to get a closer look, and her fears were quickly allayed. Coach Johannsen was simply exhilarated to have found a player so precociously obsessed with the game, and by the end of that dinner Mom had gone from worrying my coach was a pedophile to insisting he come over again the next Sunday.
These dinners became a weekly tradition, and over the course of that season we learned Coach Johannsen’s improbable story. He grew up in a Montana town too tiny for a traffic light, the youngest son of a ranch manager. His two older brothers dropped out of high school to work with their father, and Coach Johannsen would have followed suit had he not been encouraged by his high school’s football coach to put his unusual size and strength to use in another way. He started playing eight-man ball and became a legend in the area, feared by opponents and cheered by a town that didn’t have much else to cheer for. Toward the end of his senior season, a University of Wyoming recruiter drove up from Laramie to watch him play. The fantastical stories the recruiter had heard were true, and the man was so impressed by Johannsen’s performance that he offered him a scholarship in the school parking lot after the game.
Rapt, I listened to Coach Johannsen tell how he went on to be the first person in his family to earn a college degree and, more important, a four-year starter named All-American in his final two seasons. He was selected in the fourth round of the NFL draft by the New York Jets and signed a contract for more money than he’d thought a man could earn in his entire lifetime. But then his ascent mysteriously, abruptly ended. Coach Johannsen never made it to New York. In fact, he only got as far as Sillitoe when he pulled off the highway and found work as a number cruncher in the accounting department of the same mining company that employed my parents.
Why in God’s name would someone forgo such fame and fortune? Coach Johannsen was an amiable sort, gracious and exceedingly easy to talk to, but on this subject he became what you might call warmly diffident. Whenever my parents tried prying into why he’d quit the game, he would just smile in a way that said he didn’t mind at all that they were asking, but he had no intention whatsoever of answering.
I was stumped myself. Rejecting the NFL was like refusing the gift of flight.
By age twelve my pulse started racing at the oddest moments—whenever gym class ended and it was time to hit the showers, or when the warm weather returned and my male classmates resumed wearing T-shirts and shorts. A group assignment would be announced in biology and I would find myself in a lose-lose bind: if I was partnered with the boy I wanted to be paired up with, I would become unhelpably nervous when we worked together, thereby reconfirming my reputation as a weirdo; but if I wasn’t partnered with him, I would fall into a quietly violent funk that ended only once I developed an obsession with a different boy. Then there were the magazines. I’d been keeping a collection of my favorite back issues of Sports Illustrated in a blue trunk in my bedroom since I was seven, and since that age I had happily spent hours alone in my room rereading articles about football’s greats. But as I got deeper into middle school, the magazine’s photographs took on a new significance, and now when I lay on my stomach in bed looking at, say, the photo of a tennis star whose shirt had lifted in mid-serve to expose bronze belly hair, I would start imagining the coarser hair that curled beneath the elastic band of his shorts.
My body’s inner upheavals were compounded by outer ones. I had a tremendous growth spurt the summer before eighth grade, six inches and twenty pounds in just three months. This explosion coincided with daily weight-lifting sessions overseen by Coach Johannsen at our local YMCA, and by the end of the summer my body’s soft meadows and gentle valleys had transformed into hardpan plains and sheer cliffs. My voice started changing, too, deepening in fits and starts like a 747 making its final descent through a nasty storm. My metamorphosis caused a dramatic reversal in my social prospects, making me someone boys wanted to befriend and girls wanted to date; and yet I knew that caution was paramount in a town where “faggot” and “fairy” were the epithets of choice. So rather than turn into some big man on campus, I became an amiable cipher: I was friendly with male classmates but didn’t trust myself enough to develop any real friendships, and I went on enough dates with girls to avoid suspicion but used the Catholicism I bought less every mass as an excuse to squirm out of anything sexual.
Realizing I was gay placed me in better stead than many preteens like me, kids who also lived in little conservative towns in the heart of the heart of this country, but my self-knowledge only led me to face the next, even bigger quandary. I was indisputably gay and indisputably a football player, and yet all I had to do was look at the swimsuit editions of those same Sports Illustrateds or listen to my teammates argue over which of our cheerleaders had the best tits to know that “gay” and “football player” did not equate. It was like the transitive law I was learning about in math class, in which A=B, A=C, and so B=C—except that everywhere I looked, everything I heard, everything I was taught was telling me B could never, ever, equal C.
I hoped, prayed, that this irreconcilability would change—but for now I funneled all my passions into the game, and at thirteen was rewarded with the glorious experience of seeing my talent for football catch up to my enthusiasm for it. I was the only freshman at Sillitoe High to make varsity, and by the fourth game of the season I earned a starting spot, the first freshman in a decade to do so. As the weak-side outside linebacker, I led our team in tackles, sacks, and interceptions.
My profile continued rising in our town, and soon started to expand beyond it. One Saturday afternoon toward the end of the fall semester, I received a letter with the University of Colorado’s address on its upper left corner and the school’s leaping buffalo mascot beneath.
I was impressed by how you played your butt off in the fourth quarter against Highlands Ranch. That’s the kind of heart we look for at the University of Colorado.
That spring, I was nodding off in the back of my history class when I was slapped awake by a loudspeaker announcement summoning me to my head coach’s office. I leapt out of my seat, knowing there was only one reason why this would be happening, and when I reached the coach’s office at the back of the gymnasium I found a hastily shaved white man in khaki pants and a polo shirt with the University of Utah’s logo stitched to the right breast. The Utah coach extended his hand to greet me, and I knew to keep my whole body rigid for what came next: not merely a handshake, not only a greeting, but a sanctioned form of groping in which the coach would simultaneously squeeze my hand like a fruit he wanted to juice and use his other hand to pat me first on my right trap muscle, then on my shoulder, then encircle my arm with his fingers so he could touch both biceps and triceps. He was testing my musculature, seeing whether this boy was made of the man-stuff that’s a must for this game. He nodded, but then asked the dreaded question.
—What’s your weight?
I was beginning to appreciate the world-historic injustice of skipping the second grade. It had made me a year younger than the players I was competing against for a scholarship, made me a good ten pounds too light for an outside linebacker—and this regardless of the fact that under Coach Johannsen’s supervision I was eating a daily fourth meal we called “superdinner” and drinking wretched sludgy protein shakes whenever my stomach had the slightest vacancy. In theory I could have lied to the Utah coach about my weight, but to have lied to a coach was unthinkable to me in those days. So I told him the truth and watched the light die in his eyes.
—Well, he said, trailing off. You still got some time to grow.
I did have time, and did grow over the next year—not to mention having another excellent season—and yet remained undersized and watched as the quality of the programs sending letters to my house and emissaries to my high school grew more obscure. By my junior year, panic began setting in. Now college coaches were allowed to call me on the telephone, but as fall turned to winter, and then winter to spring, I only received calls from programs from the lower divisions, 1AA and 2, places I wasn’t interested in.
Senior season, I was selected first team All-County and second team All-State. Letters arrived by the dozen, and I received calls from coaches almost every week, since they were unrestricted for seniors. But the only scholarship offers were from 1AA and 2 schools, and to the consternation of my parents I declared I would never consider anything other than a D1 ride and would attend college only when I was in possession of one. I knew my parents needed the financial help more than ever, but I also knew, knew, I was D1 caliber and was convinced that to choose a school in a lesser echelon would have been to deny my destiny.
At last, mercy. The night before the final game of high school, I received a phone call that, while not ending with a scholarship offer, did end with an invitation to make an official campus visit that coming January. The call was from the King College Monarchs, about which I knew precisely three things: 1) King was in Blenheim, North Carolina; 2) it was one of the best academic schools in the country; and 3) it was the very worst football program in all of Division One.
Barrel-bottom King’s program was, I felt like royalty when I took my official visit that January. The first plane ride of my young life was on the college’s dime, as was the hotel room I stayed in that weekend—a Marriott suite where I was greeted by a gigantic cookie cake welcoming me to KING FOOTBALL COUNTRY and a queen-sized bed that would have taken up every inch of floor space in my room back home. Recruits were treated to feasts of fatty proteins and sauce-slathered carbs, given personal tours of King’s weight room, film rooms, and locker room, and on Saturday morning led down a long dark tunnel that opened onto King’s horseshoe-shaped stadium, where we’d stood on the 50-yard line and watched our names flash onto the Jumbotron screen while an announcer’s voice boomed out an imaginary play-by-play in which we each made epochal tackles or touchdowns on behalf of King. But what made all this more than a just glorified getaway was my meeting with George Zeller, King’s newly crowned head coach. Coach Zeller, at last, granted me my heart’s greatest wish—an offer of a full scholarship. Unlike the other recruiters, Coach Zeller had seen an upside in the fact that I was still only sixteen.
I signed my Letter of Intent the first Wednesday of February, and that weekend we had Coach Johannsen over for a celebratory dinner. Mom was already becoming nostalgic about me leaving for college, and that night she served dishes I would miss when I was away—beef stroganoff, potato and mushroom casserole seasoned with French Onion soup powder, bread pudding with golden raisins. Dad all the while nattered on ecstatically about my new teammates (who he promised would soon become my best friends) and Coach Zeller (the man guaranteed to lead us to the promised land).
Coach Johannsen pinged between Mom and Dad—alternately sentimental and ecstatic. Up to then, the fanciest outfit I’d seen him wear was a pair of faded blue jeans and a stretched-out polo shirt, but that night he was in dark slacks, a pressed white oxford shirt, and the gold Wyoming class ring he kept polished to a high shine. He hugged me more times that evening than he had in the decade I’d known him, and when hugging wasn’t an option he would watch me with a pride so intense I’d have to look away. He’d brought three bottles of merlot, and over the course of dinner I watched his teeth darken with the wine.
My parents called it a night, leaving Coach Johannsen and me to sit at the table. Soon Coach drifted into the past, reminiscing about his own freshman year of college, how Laramie had seemed like the fanciest place on the planet. He told me playing-days stories I’d never heard, as well as about the thrilling, out-of-body experience of sitting in his off-campus apartment while he got the call about the NFL draft. I perked up, thinking I would finally learn why he hadn’t played for the Jets; but when Johannsen finished talking about the draft, he just grew quiet and licked his lips, staring at the three empty bottles arrayed on the table. Suddenly, he pushed back his chair and stood, steadying himself by holding onto the table’s edge. He asked me to drive him home.
A blizzard had swept through the state earlier that week, and though the strong Colorado sun had melted away most of the snow, the storm system wasn’t quite done. Violent gusts lashed the long blond grass that lined the roads’ shoulders, ripping tumbleweeds from their roots and sending them skittering across the pavement. The wind knocked my dad’s small Dodge Colt from side to side, forcing me to white-knuckle the steering wheel. Coach Johannsen calmly watched the dark shape of the Rockies fill the windshield as we drove west.
I thought I heard him say something.
He used the hand crank to roll down his window. He lifted his face to the cold air, wind blasting through his thinning red hair.
—You’re going to show people when you get there, he finally said. It’s like Zeller told you. You are . . . you’re a diamond.
We pulled into his condo’s parking lot, where leftover sand laid down for the blizzard whirled in little eddies. I parked in front of Coach Johannsen’s unit.
—Were you listening? he said.
—Yeah, Coach. I’m a diamond.
He unbuckled his seatbelt, but only so he could face me more fully.
—You can play at King. And you can go to the League. But listen to me, Miles. People are gonna tell you college is when you’re supposed to open up. That . . . that you can be the person you can’t be at home. Bullshit. There are no second chances in football. You have one chance.
He was holding up his index finger to reinforce that number—one.
—Do you want me to help you get upstairs?
—Listen to me, goddamn it!
He paused, breathing hard.
—You got the rest of your life to be what you are. Life is long. Too fucking long. You just keep making football your love. And love—love can come after.
I realized I was clasping the steering wheel so hard my hands were starting to tremble. Every time I thought Coach Johannsen had intimated he knew I was gay—a glance, an oddly slanted laugh—I had dismissed it as wishful thinking. He would hate me if he knew, would never talk to me again, abandon me, scorn me. But he knew. He’d known. And understanding this now was at once exhilarating and dreadful. Exhilarating because he seemed to be telling me he wasn’t disgusted, that he was willing to sit and breathe not eight inches from where I sat and breathed, that he had been my greatest advocate for years even though he’d known. And dreadful because I had been convinced I was an expert at hiding myself and was now being told I was anything but—that I was giving off signals that were invisible to me or, worse, had fooled myself into thinking weren’t signals at all.
—Yes sir, I said.
I released the wheel and softly exhaled, hoping he would sit with me for a while. But he opened the door and gripped the top of the frame with both hands, clumsily hauling himself out of the car. He slammed the door and stuck his fists into his pockets as he hunched through the wind.
I remained parked there, trying to decide whether he had meant to slam the door.
Corey Sobel is a graduate of Duke University, where he was a scholarship football player and received the Anne Flexner Award for Fiction and the Reynolds Price Award for Scriptwriting. He has reported on human rights abuses in Burma, served as an HIV/AIDS researcher in Kenya, and consulted for the United Nations and other humanitarian organizations. He has written for numerous publications, including HuffPost, Esquire.com, and Chapel Hill News. He is the author of The Redshirt.
Music by Catlofe
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